Belgian royals: "We were meant for each other"
On Thursday 2 July King Albert and Queen Paola will celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary.
Albert, prince of Liège when he married, stunned Belgium with his Italian bride. The radiant Paola Ruffo di Calabria helped Belgians get over the death of the beloved Queen Astrid, mother of Boudewijn and Albert. The marriage soon led to the birth of three children in quick succession but seven years later the couple went through a serious crisis. They worked things out and later Paola said decisively, "We were made for each other."
Albert and Paola met each other in 1958. Albert went to Rome for the inauguration of the new Pope John XXIII. The Belgian embassy organised a reception after the ceremony where Albert saw Paola for the first time.
In 1959 Paola was introduced to the Belgian population. Paola landed at the airport in Zaventem and was met by the prince of Liège, together with his father, King Leopold. The press was also present. "The charm and beauty of the blond princess from the south quickly captured the hearts of the Belgians," wrote the newspapers then.
On 2 July 1959 the happy couple got married, in Brussels, not in Rome as first planned. Prince Albert went to Rome to plead the couple's case for a Rome wedding, but under pressure from the Belgian government the Pope refused. The wedding took place in Brussels.
The wedding attracted much public interest. Masses of people went to the St Goedele Cathedral of Brussels and the ceremony was televised.
Separated for five years
"Paola was very young and I'm sure she was happy with Albert, but it was very difficult for her to leave Italy," says Elettra Marconi, one of Paola's oldest friends.
The marriage was sealed very soon with three children in quick succession: Prince Filip was born in April 1960. Princess Astrid followed in 1962 and Prince Laurent in 1963. During that period Albert was appointed honorary chairman of the board of directors of the Belgian Department of Foreign Trade.
The prince and princess were abroad very often. The children stayed at home and according to reports, they soon felt alienated from their parents.
The prince began to travel more and more alone in the 1960s. Rumours started making the rounds on the grapevine that there were extramarital affairs going on -- on both sides. The couple started living separately and divorce papers were even drawn up.
But in the early 1980s their problems were ironed out and the marriage was salvaged. There are many versions of how this happened. Former King Boudewijn (Albert's older brother) and Cardinal Suenens were said to have played a mediating role. Albert and Paola's daughter Astrid who is a devout Catholic and part of the Charismatic Movement is rumoured to have also played a role in getting her parents back together.
In an interview on the occasion of Paola's 70th birthday, she herself conceded that there were difficult years. "We've had our problems, but now we both say that we were meant for each other. We are very happy now."
After the sudden and unexpected death of King Boudewijn in the summer of 1993, Albert and Paola became the new Royal Couple. Albert knew how to take on his new role immediately, following in the footsteps of his older brother but giving the role his own personal twist. Paola clearly had to get used to the stricter constraints of being queen and the protocol that went along with it.
In 1999 Mario Danneels published a book, revealing in print a public secret: King Albert has an extramarital child with Baroness Sybille de Sélys-Longchamps. Her name is Delphine Boël and she was born in 1968.
Albert refused and still refuses to recognise Delphine Boël. Following the publication of the book by Mario Danneels he defended his marriage with Paola. In his Christmas message to the Belgian people in 1999 he surprised everyone by saying, "The Queen and I have been reminded of the crisis that we went through as a couple, thirty years ago now... The crisis period was recently brought to recollection again. We do not wish to go into the issue any further; it is part of our private life."
The media storm finally subsided, or rather was replaced by attention on the marriage of Prince Filip to Mathilde d'Udekem d'Acoz.
Over recent years the impression we get of Albert and Paola is that of a King and Queen working together, in tandem, both in their commitments as Royal Couple as well as in their private lives, for example on vacation in Italy.
Their pride and joy these days are their twelve grandchildren, who fondly call them Grandpa Tino and Grandma Lita.